Don’t forget digital assets in your will

As a writer, I do think about this — not enough to do anything yet, but I do think about it:

Most of us have carefully thought about what will happen to our family members and heirs when we die. We have laid out specific and thorough plans to disperse our assets – homes, cars, savings accounts, jewelry, and other valuables – and we’ve taken the necessary legal steps to document our wishes to ensure they are realized when the time comes.

In today’s digital age, however, a new asset class has emerged, which is not always protected properly through traditional wills and estate planning. Digital assets are now far-reaching and encompass much more than the documents or photos housed on our home computers.

The advent of social media, cloud-based storage, and e-commerce means we now must include much more in our estate planning efforts – everything from management of our Facebook and Twitter accounts, to ownership of personal photos and videos stored online.

There is also music purchased and downloaded to our phones, as well as, user names and passwords to our multiple online accounts for banks, brokerages, retail outlets, frequent flyer programs, and subscription services, just to name a few. The amount of digital information associated with our individual identities can be staggering.

For some survivors, the assets’ intangible value might be considerable. Think about family photo albums or music collections that have been accumulated over a decade. Wouldn’t it be critical for our loved ones to have permanent access rights to these memories and compilations we’ve created and/or paid for?

As to more tangible assets, such as bank accounts and insurance policies, simply having the ability to view and manage online accounts can greatly facilitate asset identification and the probate process. But because individual service providers have distinct “ownership” policies when an account holder dies, post mortem access to these assets is not always guaranteed.

According to probate attorney Kerri Castellini, “Digital assets and online information access present a vast array of legal issues ranging from data privacy and encryption laws to physical property ownership. While state and federal statutes struggle to keep up, directives are frequently unclear, and survivors’ legal rights are often ambiguous at best. It is therefore often critical to consider digital assets in many estate plans to ensure that beneficiaries, executors, and other fiduciaries have a well-defined path to follow.”

The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) offers straightforward guidance about what you can do to plan ahead. A key first step is to make a list of all your online accounts including username, password, account number, et cetera. You will need to store the list in a secure place, keep it updated, and notify your executor or fiduciary about its location.

Another important basic step is to identify all your digital property such as photos, music, and other media to determine how you wish the property to be handled.

Depending on the number of digital assets in your estate, as well as the complexity of the Confidentiality Agreement and/or User Agreement you signed when you created your digital accounts, you may want to meet with an experienced estate attorney to help you understand the process and assess any risks.